I’m often dabbling with watercolors in sketchbooks that aren’t really made for using them– regular notebook or sketchbook paper can deteriorate a bit with wet paints, or wrinkle and buckle a lot as it dries. So I’ve been experimenting more with using actual watercolor paper in hopes of better results. I’ve had various watercolor pads over the year, and I’ve reviewed larger-size Stillman and Birn sketchbooks that work beautifully with wet media, but for the sake of fitting more closely with my more frequent daily notebook form factor, I decided to try a Moleskine watercolor book in the pocket size. As is typical with Moleskines made in the last few years, it did not seem as well-made as it could be, and I’ve seen complaints online about a change in quality in Moleskine’s watercolor paper, so I decided to check out some other alternatives in the same format. Let’s take a look!
Here they all are, the Moleskine, as well as the Pen & Ink watercolor sketchbook from Art Alternatives, and the Pentalic Aqua Journal.
In close-up of spines below, from left to right: Moleskine, Pentalic, Pen & Ink.
In photos below, from top to bottom: Pentalic, Moleskine, Pen & Ink.
They are all very similar in terms of packaging, size, and features, but each has some features that differentiate it.
The Moleskine is the thinnest, mainly due to having thinner cover boards. The spine is a little crooked and loose, as if it was glued to the book block a bit unevenly. The binding is nice and flexible, though, and opens totally flat, except for the spreads between signatures where a little glue keeps the gutter from opening all the way down– it’s still quite flat, though. You can actually fold the cover back about 270°. Each signature is 3 sheets of paper, 60 pages total. The pages are not perforated (though I have heard that at one point Moleskine watercolor books did have perforated pages, I think). I’ve done various sorts of doodles and sketches in it with varying degrees of wetness, but the pages have all dried nice and flat. Moleskine says the paper is “heavy” but does not specify a paper weight in GSM or lbs. For my purposes, it is perfectly fine although as always, I wish Moleskine had not started to let the cover edges stick out so far from the pages. The list price for the pocket size watercolor book is $13.95. Other sizes are available.
I bought the Pen & Ink watercolor book after being so pleased with their heavyweight page sketchbook as a Moleskine alternative. I like their slightly soft cover material and nicely rounded spines. Art Alternatives sketchbooks always seem very well-made, especially given their low prices. This watercolor book includes a ribbon marker, which I could live without– it has a lot of extra length dangling out. Every page is perforated. The paper seems of a similar weight to Moleskine, but is perhaps very slightly cooler in tone, and the texture of it seems to have a more linear grain than Moleskine’s. Each signature is 2 sheets of cold press 180 GSM paper, 56 pages total. There is glue between the signatures here too, but it’s hard to compare how it opens flat because the perforations cause a bend before you even get into the gutter, and you probably wouldn’t want to paint across a spread with the perforations in the middle anyway. Again the whole book can be opened more than flat, almost but not quite bending all the way back on itself. Again the pages seem to hold up well to wet washes without buckling or deteriorating, but my pH test pen seemed to indicate the paper is not as acid-free as the other watercolor notebooks. The pen should look purple on acid-free paper, but it came out more a brownish-yellow on several tries, which indicates acidity. The list price for this sketchbook is $10.99, but discounted prices can be much lower. A larger size is also available.
The Pentalic watercolor journal was my favorite in terms of how it feels in the hand– it’s a bit smaller and chunkier than the others, with slightly less cover overhang. The exterior is a dark blue, which is a nice change. Here you have 6 signatures of 2 sheets each, so only 48 pages, but the paper is 300 GSM and very noticeably thicker than the others. The spine is a bit too liberally glued, unfortunately, so the binding is a bit stiff and needs to be bent back and forth to loosen it. The end pages where the book block is attached to the cover are really heavily glued and the back cover doesn’t open totally flat. This is especially a problem because the back pocket comes up closer to the spine than on the other two notebooks, making it awkward to actually get anything into the pocket. There were some pages where the glue between signatures came pretty far out of the gutter and the residue is visible where I forced the pages flat. This was the only notebook to include a loop that could hold a pencil or brush (which I personally could live without). This also has a ribbon marker. The pages seemed to hold up well to my tests. I paid $12.95 for this, but I had a hard time finding this size for sale online anywhere and could not confirm if that is the official list price.
Ultimately, I’m not enough of a watercolor expert to really judge these notebooks based on the performance of the paper– I muddle around with watercolors as the easiest way to color in some of my sketches, but I don’t know how to properly use them in any more sophisticated way. For my needs, the paper in all of these sketchbooks works just fine, though I’m concerned that the Pen & Ink paper might yellow with time if it’s not acid-free. This comparison is more about the form and features of each sketchbook– every user will be different in their preferences regarding ribbon markers, pen loops, thickness, etc. I’m having a hard time picking a favorite– I lean towards the Pentalic because I love the chunky shape and thick paper, but the stiff binding , ribbon marker, pen loop, and awkward back pocket are negative factors for me. (I might just try to remove the ribbon marker and pen loop.)
FYI, the paints I’ve used in all these are mostly artist-grade Winsor & Newton— despite my lack of expertise, I splurged on an upgrade from the student-grade Cotman sets I already owned, partly because I liked the folding metal tin they came in. This set seems to have been discontinued, but you can buy the empty metal tin separately. It’s meant to hold 12 half-pans, but you can easily fit in more. Schmincke and Sennelier also make watercolor sets in this type of tin.
I would love to hear from more experienced watercolor users– what are your favorite pocket size sketchbooks? What do you look for in paper? What other features do you prefer?
Links to buy all these sketchbooks at Amazon and Blick are below. I did not find the Pentalic for sale online in the 3.5 x 5.5″ size, but there are listings for a larger size. I bought my small one at Lee’s Art Shop in Manhattan.
Moleskine Art Plus Watercolor Album, Pocket, Black, Hard Cover (3.5 x 5.5) (Classic Notebooks)
$13.95 at Amazon
Moleskine Watercolor Notebooks
$12.44 at Blick
Pentalic 100-Percent Cotton Watercolor Journal 5-Inch by 8-Inch
$15.48 at Amazon for 5×8 version, 3.5 x 5.5 not listed there
Pentalic Watercolor Journal and Travel Brush Set
$18.99 at Blick for 5×8 set including brush, 3.5×5.5 version not listed there
Art Alternatives Pen & Ink Watercolor Books – 5.5″x3.5″ – 56 122lb Cold Press Pages
$7.69 at Amazon
Art Alternatives Watercolor Books
$9.23 at Blick